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The coronavirus outbreak has only heightened Hong Kong’s hostility towards Beijing

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Ilaria Maria Sala
a person standing in front of a building: Photograph: Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The coronavirus outbreak hit Hong Kong as the territory was still reeling from months of political unrest. Last year, the mass protests that started after the special administrative region’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, attempted to introduce an extradition bill with mainland China evolved into nightly confrontations between police and demonstrators. Protesters were arrested in their thousands.

Related: Hong Kong has declared war against its young people | Avery Ng

Then, at the start of the year, as news of the coronavirus outbreak started to surface, an exhausted population had something else to worry about. The epidemic, which has infected more than 44,000 people and killed more than 1,100 of them, has rekindled old fears. Once more, it has made many Hong Kong citizens feel that, in a crisis, they are unable to rely on a supportive, competent government: local leaders have kept dithering, half closing the border, then closing it a little more, while being unable to even guarantee a steady supply of face masks and toilet paper. Throughout, they wait for guidance from Beijing on how to act.

A Hong Kong shopper walks past empty supermarket shelves, usually stocked with toilet paper and kitchen rolls. © Photograph: Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images A Hong Kong shopper walks past empty supermarket shelves, usually stocked with toilet paper and kitchen rolls.

While anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus has been keeping many people at home, the protests haven’t entirely ceased: they may have fewer participants, but night skirmishes are still ongoing. On Saturday, a few hundred people gathered to commemorate the death of a university student who fell while trying to escape teargas in October; police dispersed the protest and arrested 119 people. Smaller protests, too, still end with teargas, pepper spray and arrests.

Meanwhile, newer forms of dissent have been emerging from last year’s mobilisation. The recent strike of hospital workers, who were demanding the closure of the border with mainland China to avoid an outbreak in Hong Kong, was organised by the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, a trade union organisation that in December counted just 300 members. After a unionisation drive inspired by the general strikes organised during last year’s protests, it is now 18,000-strong. The strike didn’t succeed, but it showed how the protest movement in Hong Kong has evolved to integrate different types of actions and demands.

The sight of hospital workers on strike while a public health emergency is unfolding might be shocking, but it is proof of the depth of mistrust Hong Kong has towards the authorities, both here and in Beijing. After all, the territory was one of the main victims of the Sars epidemic – which originated in Guangdong in November 2002, but was kept mostly secret by the Chinese government until February 2003. China’s cover-up continued well into April; meanwhile, 299 people in Hong Kong lost their lives.

Once the crisis was brought under control, the authorities signed the Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Agreement (CEPA), to help Hong Kong get out of its post-Sars economic gloom. Among other things, this allowed millions of mainland tourists to visit without a visa. Neighbourhoods started to shapeshift, as old shops had to make way for new stores catering for mainlanders’ desires and needs; landlords couldn’t raise rents fast enough as new tenants with extravagantly priced clothes and pharmaceuticals to sell were eager to tap into the Chinese visitors’ bonanza.

As the protests escalated last year, the Chinese propaganda organs on the mainland resorted to shaping the narrative in nationalistic terms: Hong Kong demonstrators were “traitors to the motherland” with foreign backing, they said, sparking an animosity so strong that the sides took to calling each other “cockroaches” (for the protesters) and “dogs” (for mainland Chinese). That antagonism certainly hasn’t abated in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Some shops in Hong Kong have put up signs saying they will not serve “Mandarin speakers” or anyone from the mainland – ostensibly as a precaution against the virus, as if that gave a veneer of respectability to discrimination. In social media and in graffiti, anti-Chinese sentiment has been steady: there are widespread claims that mainlanders are hoarding masks and hand sanitiser (the long queues outside shops are, in fact, mostly filled with locals). They are blamed for depriving Hong Kong of its resources, from hospital beds to milk formula, even if a quick look around the city shows that the people profiteering from face masks and disinfectant come from across the geographical and linguistic spectrum.

This time round the Chinese government has been acting faster than it did in 2003, while still falling into its habit of suppressing news and pumping out propaganda. The Hong Kong government, on the other hand, has fumbled its response to the point that one of the richest cities in Asia finds itself without toilet paper. Even now, it is still trying to ban people from hiding their identities by wearing face masks at protests. When hospital workers were striking, Lam refused to speak with them, and introduced one half-hearted measure after another on border controls.

At the moment, most land borders are closed, but the airport is still open. Rumours thrive, and people are panic-buying: rice, toilet paper, face masks, hand sanitiser. Few doubt that once the coronavirus emergency subsides, the protests will start again: against a local government appointed from on high, which cannot even guarantee basic supplies at a time of crisis, and against the fear of being absorbed into mainland China. The hostility towards both has only been intensified by the epidemic.

• Ilaria Maria Sala is a writer and journalist based in Hong Kong

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